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” Hedgelayers do it in style!” may sound like an amusing bumper-sticker but it refers to one of the most fascinating features of this rural skill: that local differences exist in hedgerow management, called by the National Hedgelaying Society Regional Styles. There are more than 30 styles recorded in the UK, with more in Europe, according to the NHLS.

Hedgelaying in Europe has evolved over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years in a process perhaps not dissimilar to that which drives the emergence of new species. The simple practice of cutting or bending stems to form a living fence is expressed differently as local ecology and geology, and the temperament of local people define it, with differing styles- and even the tools for the job- as an emerging property. Hedgelaying certainly came to the Americas with European settlers (although dead hedging was use by the First Nations, and some form of management may have existed…) but it seems to have died out, along with the planting of deciduous hedgerows outside gardens.

In the modern world, connection to the landscape and the local appears to be waning. The Hedgelaying in the Ontario’s Landscape project was started to explore, amongst other things, the relationship between people and the landscape through the practice of this rural skill. How might Ontarions interpret hedgerows and hedgelaying? How would it fit into the landscape where field boundary management is not a familiar practice?

One of the drawbacks for anyone wanting to learn and practice hedgelaying in the North American landscape is the paucity of good hedgerows. If you want to manage your hedgerow using hedgelaying techniques, you need a high frequency (approx 5/m) of stems in the 2-10cm width bracket, and really not much higher than 3-4m. For the traditional hedgelayer this paucity represents a serious drawback. However, as I am learning, thelack of ‘good’ hedgerows can be navigated with a bit of imagination!

Last weekend professional hedgelayer Nigel Adams and I taught 17 people to lay ‘hedgerows’ at Wellspring Forest Farm in New York State. We had seen the materials we would be working with on video thanks to owner Steve Gabriel but what looked reasonable on film didn’t translate well to reality. Seeing the woodland edge with many mature trees and a section of patchy invasive European buckthorn scrub we tried not to be dispirited but it seemed like it would be a hard job to produce anything resembling a well layed hedge. Having taught workshops already in Ontario, I think I had been more prepared for the North American hedgerow context than Nigel. Then Steve showed us a line of willows along a raised bank which, although a little short, was enough to raise our spirits. We also found two sections of woodland edge with a fair number of stems. After a good nights sleep Nigel felt better about our hedges and even decided that we should increase the number of stems in the hedge by pushing in cut willow branches from our binder pile- we had more than enough. Not something you would see in the National Hedgelaying Championships in the UK!

The hedgerows we layed, in South of England and Midland styles, both made good living fences and were aesthetically pleasing, and it reinforced my belief that until new planted hedges mature, North American hedgelaying was perhaps going to be about bringing skills developed on European hedgerows to local contexts, not being afraid to break rules and try new things. The interplay of skills and new contexts will hopefully allow new styles to emerge.

Yesterday as I continued to research the history of hedgerows and hedgelaying on this continent, I came across the work of Dr Johann D. Schoepf (1752-1800), a German-born physician and botanist who wrote about his travels in North America in “Travels in the Confederation (1783-4)”

Its clear then from Dr Schoepf’s writing that the methods of hedgelaying we practiced this weekend were even in 1783 the ‘Style’ in North America: inter-planting stems where they didn’t exist and finding stems ‘standing together as much as possible’- in effect creating a hedge line out of a confusion of stems in the woodland edge or field boundary.

Something to think about as the interest in hedgerows and hedgelaying in North America continues to rise.


The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks  to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.

Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.

I find myself, like many others,  outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation.  Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.

I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some  thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and  about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).

Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.

Harari’s  theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than  a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored  by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .

One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).

But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring  the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.

Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported  that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water  is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.

The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.

Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species.  While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.

These are hedges along a footpath to Guildford lane, which is to the south of White Lane.

These are hedges along a footpath from Halfpenny Lane to Guildford lane, which is to the south of White Lane. Photo by Alan Hunt

Thanks to @viewfromMoleValley who tweeted this morning the website  Exploring Surrey’s Past. I thought I’d see what information it had on old hedgerows and I found this record for an ancient hedge. Sadly the GR is a single point so I have no idea as to the extent of the hedge. I’ve walked up there a few times when I lived in Guildford, up over Pewley Downs to St Martha’s and Newlands Corner and there are some great long hedges there.

RefNo: 5559Reference Number:

SHHER_5559Site Name: 12th cenutry hedgerow, White Lane, Guildford

Grid Reference: 502500 149000

Description: Hedgerow dating by Surrey Archaeological Society suggests that the hedgerow on the north side of the lane dates to the 12th century. The hedgerow to the south is likely to be of a similar age, but has been affected by modern development.


I’ve marked this on a new Surrey Hedgerows Google Map (its the only one on therecurrently!) which I intend to build on over time. I’ve also got a Surrey Hedgerows Facebook site where I hope people will send in pictures.

There has been a long running survey of hedgerows in Sussex- the Hedgerow Inventory Project run by Peter Challis and the Sussex Biological Records Centre. I’m not aware of anything similar in Surrey and after 3 years helming PTES’ Hedgerows for Dormice Project 2009-2011. its always been a goal to start a project to train volunteers to map this semi-natural Priority Habitat , Who knows what 2015 will bring?

I wonder how many other very old hedgerows there are out there in Surrey?

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